The human person is a composite of a immaterial soul that dwells within a physical body. This understanding of the human person recognizes that there is a profound interconnection between our interior life and our physical existence. We are not simply spirits that are trapped in a physical shell, but rather we are incarnate beings whose body is as much an expression of our identity as other elements. Classically, both Christian and pagan cultures viewed the training of one’s interior life as involving a training of the body as well. Such physical and spiritual discipline was often referred to as asceticism.
Due to some excesses in Western Christianity, many people today view asceticism and mortification as an anti-body practice of an age in which fanatic Christians sought to repress their desires through punishing their flesh. Along these lines, many think that the best way of pursuing the good life is to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain. Such a perspective assumes that we have reached a point in civilization where asceticism is barbaric and outdated. At the same time, many also embrace a hyper attention to the body in which physical health is considered an end in itself.
The reality is that the goal of asceticism is to develop a gentle mastery over the body so that we can be free to love God and neighbor. In this way, the goal of our asceticism is to cultivate stillness in the body, so that we can participate in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. In the classical mind, patterns of disordered thinking, feeling, and desiring was tied to deep physical attachments as well. Thus, by training the body, we train the mind.
In order to train both body and mind, we need to integrate a whole series of activities which tie together both the health of the body and the health of the soul. Much research has been done on how fasting can be good for one’s physical health. The natural goods of fasting likewise lead to greater spiritual benefits. Fasting can help strengthen the will by freeing us from our preoccupation with pleasure and comfort. Likewise, allowing ourselves to feel the pain and discomfort of fasting can be a powerful antidote to our egocentricity.
In addition, physical exercise that integrates endurance, flexibility, and strength can help us to nourish our body in ways that promote a stronger mind as well. In our contemporary culture, asceticism should embrace physical exercise, but not to promote a disordered preoccupation with health or physical appearance. In the past, spiritual writers highlighted the importance of manual labor and physical exertion. In an age when many of us work in jobs that do not actively engage the body, we must compensate in order to cultivate a life of stillness. Thus exercise can become a spiritual practice that helps us to achieve the freedom needed to embrace Christ’s love.
We should also add a word of caution. Physical health does not equate to holiness and there have been many examples of saints who did not have the best of health. What all the saints had, though, was freedom from the pleasures and pains that accompany the body. Thus, in the midst of suffering, they were able to rise to the heights of the spiritual freedom found in Christ. In good health and bad health, the goal is cultivate faith, hope, and love. That being said, many people can benefit from viewing asceticism with a renewed understanding.